Local Government in Spain

Author:Angel-Manuel Moreno

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1. Brief historical evolution

As in many other European countries, local government has been in Spain a key feature in the political evolution of the Nation. Municipalities can be traced back to the Roman domination (as the word «municipality» itself comes from Latin), at times when the country was called Hispania. During the Middle Ages, several towns and cities were granted charters and privileges by the King, which received different names (cartas de población, franquicias, fueros, etc.). Other towns and cities had their own by-laws, (ordenanzas), respected by the Crown. During the centuries of absolutism (XV-XVIII), those privileges (fueros) were progressively abrogated by the Monarchy, but still remained respected in some parts of the country.1In the modern sense, though, one can only speak of «local government law» or of «local autonomy» from the XIXth century, when the constitutional period started.2During the XIXth and the XXth centuries, Spain went through a convulsed history. Different constitutions were approved (1812, 1834, 1837, 1845, 1869, 1876, 1931 and 1978). Several turbulent political crises took place, including cruel civil wars, endless military putsches and two «soft» revolutions, each one leading to the establishment of a Republic in the country (in 1873-74 and 1931-1939).

Within this scenario, it is easy to understand that both the historical evolution of local self-government and the law on the matter have followed an uneasy and erratic pattern. During the XIXth and XXth centuries, different pieces of legislation on local government were approved, each one responding to diverging political orientations and constitutional grounds. However, a basic al-

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ternative can be identified within this legislative evolution, as two vigorous and conflicting trends opposed: on the one hand, the conservative model (the dominant one from a temporal point of view), inspired by a centralist approach to local government, which favoured a system of control of cities and provinces from the State bureaucracy and departments; and on the other hand, the «progressive» (progresista) approach, that was supportive of a greater autonomy for the local bodies.

As an example of this «pendular» historical evolution, it is important to point that, during the XIXth century, local elections were alternatively introduced and eliminated, according to the dominant political trend of the moment. When they were called, the right to vote was restricted to the wealthy or qualified people (sufragio censitario), and the first «general» and «open» local elections did not take place until 1869. Even on that occasion, only men had the right to cast ballots. The vote for women in local elections was only recognised (in a partial way) in 1924,3and in a general way in the 1931 Constitution.4Thus, during the period 1812-1975, different general rules on local government were promulgated in 1812/1823, 1840, 1845 (inspired by a centralist model), 1870 (following a progressive model) 1877 (centralist model), 1924 («estatuto municipal de Calvo Sotelo» following a progressive model, but largely unimplemented), and 1935 (progressive and democratic model).

The regime of General Franco (1936-1975), reinstated a centralist model of local government. Three main pieces of legislation on local administration were approved in 1945/1950, 1953/1955 and 1975, which lasted in force until the re-introduction of Democracy. A system of direct control over local government was performed by the national government, both at the central level (Ministries, Ministerios) and at the territorial one, by means of the «civil governor» (Gobernador civil, a political delegate of the central Executive in the province). Mayors (in municipalities) and Presidents of the councils (in the provinces), were directly appointed by the civil governor in each Province. Free and direct elections were suppressed at all levels (local, regional and national). At the local level, though, some forms of quasi-electoral procedures were maintained by the abovementioned legislation. In fact, local elections took place at different times, but the right to vote was restricted to male «heads of family», who could only designate a portion of local council members (the so-called «family» representatives).

After the death of General Franco, a broad and comprehensive political process, conducted personally by the King, known as the «political transition» (la transición política), took place in 1975-1978 and eventually allowed the

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recuperation of Democracy and the promulgation of a modern Constitution (voted by the people on 6 December, 1978). This Constitution represents a clear and radical shift in the historical evolution of local government in Spain: it clearly recognises local autonomy and regulates the essential nutshell of some types of local authorities (see point 3, below). For what concerns democratic procedures, the Constitution reinstated direct, open and free elections for all level of territorial government.5In 1985, a national statute was enacted (the «7/85» Act), which still forms the backbone or «framework» legislation for all contemporary Spanish Law on local government. Several amendments have taken place afterwards. At different times during the last four years, legislative initiatives to change the system have been announced by the central government, but did not come to an end.6One streaking feature of this process of local government decentralisation is that it was accomplished at the same time as regional devolution.7The politicians of the time, though, were capable to frame these two processes in a separate way, although both radical transformations had many points of contact, whose actual definition remained the source of political controversy. The combined result of this two-fold political decentralisation process is that, at present, Spain presents a territorial structure which is totally different to the one that was in force in the seventies, and there is a neat division among three different layers of government: local government, regional government (Comunidades Autónomas) and the national level.

In the last decade, local government has continued to trigger many debates and political discussions. The hottest issues are the following ones: (1) the excessive number of municipal units (more than 8100, many of them having less than 1000 inhabitants, see point 2, below). Amalgamation of neighbouring towns has frequently been suggested as a solution, but never tried seriously; (2) which is the right role and profile of the province as a local government unit, placed between the municipal level and the regions (Comunidades Autónomas);
(3) in the context of devolution, the allocation of powers between the State and the Regions in the field of local government is still a matter of political and constitutional discussion, as the 2010 ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia has showed (see below, point 3); and (4) the

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structural, unsatisfactory situation of local government finances and resources is a recurrent topic. Moreover, it has been aggravated by the economic crisis and the explosion of the construction and housing «bubble» (2007-2010) , which was a key source of funding for municipalities (see, below, point 7).

2. Basic facts and figures

From the point of view of their historical, political and social importance, in Spain there are three main types of local authorities (Entidades Locales, in Spanish): Municipalities (municipios), Provinces (provincias) and Islands (islas).8Municipalities make up the «first tier» of local government. In a colloquial way, municipalities are seldmon characterised as towns (pueblos) or cities (ciudades) according to their size and population, but this difference (apart from being imprecise) has no legal implications whatsoever (taking apart the case of the formal «big cities», see below, point 5.2.3). Provinces and Islands form the «second tier» of local government.

The State, Basic Act on Local government (hereinafter, «the 7/85 Act»)9 identifies these bodies as «territorial local entities» (entidales locales territoriales). They enjoy something called «institutional guarantee» (garantía institucional),10which means, grosso modo, that they are recognised and protected by the Constitution as a integral part of the territorial structure of the Country. This constitutional characterisation of those local government units implies two important consequences: (a) their existence is guaranteed by...

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